The amount of money pouring into the game and the infrastructure around it, and the feeling that so much of this money and attention is speculative, working in the hope that “Valorant’s” stock grows, has imbued the game with a ghostly second self, a meta-game outside of the game, a building of momentum in service of momentum alone. That sense of inevitability — the feeling that a marquee title from one of the most important game developers in the world would be with us whether it was good or not — perturbed me from the start.
Having played a considerable amount of “Valorant” since the first days of the beta — some time alone, and some with friends who are experienced tactical first-person-shooter (FPS) players — I can safely say that the game feels great to play. It is an extraordinarily well-tuned instrument, a feat of polish and thought that projects tremendous confidence. At the same time, the comparison I find myself reaching for when I try to describe “Valorant” to someone unfamiliar with the game is chess, or the work of a prestigious, luxury watchmaker. And from that point of view, it is strange to see “Valorant” — a game that values precision and forethought to such an extent that it can read as stoic and introverted — positioned as the Next Big Thing.
“Valorant” is a first person shooter in which teams of five compete to plant or defuse a bomb. The objective is to be the first team to win 13 rounds, which can be achieved in two ways. First, and most simply, players can eliminate the entire enemy team. Alternatively, the attacking team can plant the bomb and nurse it until it explodes; the defenders’ task is to evade or defeat the opposing team and defuse the bomb before it goes off.
“Valorant’s” chess-like quality comes through from its 11 agents’ abilities and purchasable utilities. These can limit the movement and sight of opponents, expose enemy positioning, provide cover and health for teammates and deal damage or disorient players who are out of sight and can’t be taken out by a well-placed bullet. The game has substantially more verbs at its disposal than other first person shooters. In “Call of Duty: Warzone,” another title I’ve spent a considerable number of hours playing recently, there are essentially two main verbs: run and shoot. In “Valorant,” the pool of actions a player can draw upon to change the course of a round is far deeper: wall off, slow, smoke, blind, flash, drone, ult, destroy, push. “I’m going to teleport into heaven” is a phrase you’re likely to hear pretty frequently while playing.
In effect, all of these utilities ultimately serve the purpose of slowing down the enemy, thereby forcing them to make decisions at an ever-faster pace — which opens them up to risk and disadvantage. (Or, conversely, speeding up your team, enabling them to think a step ahead). If the opponents’ entry onto a bomb site is obscured, they’ll lack crucial information — knowledge of a sniper hard-scoping their chosen entry, for example. But if they’re running out of time, slowed on every other route or whittled down by more capable shooters, attempting that play is a risk they’ll have to take. Every round, then, is an exercise in setting your team up to hold the informational advantage over the opponent.
The interplay of these abilities is what makes the game feel watch-like. If one player uses Sage, the healer character, to set up a wall and block a pathway, a Raze on the other team can use her rocket jump ability to hop over. If one team deploys its smoke grenades to make good opposing vantage points untenable, clearing the way for them to rush a bomb site, Sova, the Russian archer, can fire his recon arrow to expose those players through the smoke. It’s a rhythmic interplay of abilities, like clockwork. One gear turns, shifting another, and then another, and so on until the end of the round.
The big problem with this is that harassment and bad behavior is rampant in the game’s voice and text chat, which are crucial for coordination at higher levels. In the last game I played while writing this review, multiple teammates made gratuitous use of racial slurs in voice chat. “Valorant” has a comprehensive reporting system, and the game’s full release opens with a statement of intent regarding communal values. But I think another challenge of trying to be the Alpha game is that it’s harder, by definition, to be intentional about the community you’re inviting to play.
Like a stunning chess match or the work of an artisan watchmaker, “Valorant” is a game that is exciting to observe. It’s a game I wish I could solve, and find the precise sequence of abilities and counters that would lead to victory. But while the moment to moment play — the split second decisions and micro dramas of player encounters that terrace up to the final encounter of the round — can be exhilarating, the net effect is exhaustion. Although “Valorant” is about time, in a sense, I am not sure that it has nailed a good length for its games. Rounds traditionally last 45 minutes or so, and no matter how a game goes, my mental state at the end of a first-to-13 match is usually one of bargaining. Staring at the scoreboard after a match, I can feel the full weight of my body, the crane in my neck, the vaporous, carcinogenic feeling in the blood when you sit in one place for too long. Do I really want to play another?
Riot Games’s attempted solution to this is Spike Rush, a game mode that condenses — with a few rule changes — the core game into a first-to-four experience. But those rule changes make Spike Rush a lesser version of the original, an unflattering imitation.
Here comes the inevitable caveat: I am mostly just ok at Valorant. If Riot were to publicize my KDA, I would melt from embarrassment. I am a perennial lurker in the latter half of the scoreboard. To the opposing team, I am at best a pothole, and at worst a speed bump on their road to victory. (Most players, in this analogy, would just be another car. Alas.) I have made my peace with being a supporting actor in most Valorant matches, opening up lines of sight or shielding my teammates from harm. From my perspective, the game has yet to figure out an adequate system for rewarding these kinds of plays, but I can empathize with the challenge of quantifying, “The opposing player is annoyed at having to waste time finding an alternate passage after I walled-off a hallway,” or “My teammate is grateful for the heal I just administered.”
The excuse that I’ve defaulted to for my level of play is that so many of my games have been encumbered by a bad connection despite a respectable setup. It does not feel like I am alone in this: I would estimate that roughly one-third of the games I’ve played have had a player, or multiple players lose connection during the match. On more than one occasion, I’ve had to apologize to my teammates because my ping suddenly skyrocketed into the high triple digits. For a game that marketed itself as the next step in the evolutionary timeline of online play, this feels like a profound problem. Launching during a pandemic — when Internet service providers have been under increased strain — may have exacerbated this problem. But the circumstances and explanations, no matter how understandable, regrettably can’t change the experience of play.
I like “Valorant.” I will likely keep playing “Valorant.” Playing with a team of friends, in particular, is a joy. But the game is also extraordinarily demanding of players, while being mostly tasteful, restrained and unpretentious, especially compared to the more forgiving and juicier (in terms of aesthetics, content and in-game feel) free to play shooters that crowd the space now.
I like tennis a lot. I was an enthusiastic, though not particularly accomplished, doubles player in high school. But if you suggested that we swap the Super Bowl or prime-time dramas for Wimbledon, I’m not sure what I would have to say. The idea that “Valorant” is the next step for online first person shooters sits poorly with me. It is a yet-unproven hypothesis.